Articles | Volume 8, issue 2
Research article
03 Mar 2014
Research article |  | 03 Mar 2014

What drives basin scale spatial variability of snowpack properties in northern Colorado?

G. A. Sexstone and S. R. Fassnacht

Abstract. This study uses a combination of field measurements and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) operational snow data to understand the drivers of snow density and snow water equivalent (SWE) variability at the basin scale (100s to 1000s km2). Historic snow course snowpack density observations were analyzed within a multiple linear regression snow density model to estimate SWE directly from snow depth measurements. Snow surveys were completed on or about 1 April 2011 and 2012 and combined with NRCS operational measurements to investigate the spatial variability of SWE near peak snow accumulation. Bivariate relations and multiple linear regression models were developed to understand the relation of snow density and SWE with terrain variables (derived using a geographic information system (GIS)). Snow density variability was best explained by day of year, snow depth, UTM Easting, and elevation. Calculation of SWE directly from snow depth measurement using the snow density model has strong statistical performance, and model validation suggests the model is transferable to independent data within the bounds of the original data set. This pathway of estimating SWE directly from snow depth measurement is useful when evaluating snowpack properties at the basin scale, where many time-consuming measurements of SWE are often not feasible. A comparison with a previously developed snow density model shows that calibrating a snow density model to a specific basin can provide improvement of SWE estimation at this scale, and should be considered for future basin scale analyses. During both water year (WY) 2011 and 2012, elevation and location (UTM Easting and/or UTM Northing) were the most important SWE model variables, suggesting that orographic precipitation and storm track patterns are likely driving basin scale SWE variability. Terrain curvature was also shown to be an important variable, but to a lesser extent at the scale of interest.